The wild dogs of Africa (also called "painted dogs") live in packs and care for sick, elderly and injured members. © Ken Coe

On the Hunt with the Wild Dogs of Africa

Sitting three to a row in the land rover, we’ve just set out for an evening game drive. Chatter about the day’s meetings has us distracted and we almost miss what’s right in front of us: a single wild dog. The first I’ve ever seen. He rests for a breath in the middle of the road and then dashes to the other side as quietly as he came. Stealth mode.

An excited half-whisper bursts forward from the row behind me. “There’s another one!” And like magic, more wild dogs appear, emerging from their savanna hideouts. My gaze opens from an individual dog to a wider view. I see they have big plans. Their sights are set on zebras.

Like a SWAT team, they move in carefully scripted coordination. They work together, weaving between the ten or so zebras that have gathered in a clearing. One dog pushes the herd from behind while another sweeps in from the side to scoop up any stragglers. They are veterans and accurately anticipate their opponent’s every move.

Until the tide starts to turn. As if someone has tapped the zebras on the shoulder and reminded them they are actually bigger than the wild dogs, the zebras start pushing back. Looking larger as they gather their wits and hold their ground, individual zebra start running straight at dogs.

We’re parked just yards away. The light is clear. A deep green grass coats the clearing. The contrast makes dogs and zebras easy to spot, but it’s hard to make out exactly what’s happening in this melee of stripes and spots, barks and brays. Everything is moving in all directions.

Suddenly, a second group of dogs rushes down the hill over our right shoulders. Seemingly through ESP, the two teams join forces and at least twenty dogs band together to mobilize and go after even bigger prey. This time, it is eland. A small herd of these cow-like antelope, with their twisting horns and oblong heads resting above too-broad shoulders, circle their calves and lumber uphill.

We gawkers, who are already breathless from the first act, sit in stunned silence as the second begins. It is choreographed chaos. Just like before, all of the animals are moving. The dogs are focused, tenacious in their attempts to separate an eland calf from the herd. The huge adult eland stay in formation, shifting steadily to position themselves between the dogs and their calves. A surprise pounce and a subsequent cry elicit a hopeful chorus of yips from the pack.

“Did they get it?” We ask each other without looking up from our binoculars.

A frenzied gathering of dogs on the hill looks promising for the pack, not the eland. But as the scene slowly settles, we see the dogs have come up short again. With the dogs busy investigating, the zebras and eland move on, rounding the hillside to escape our sight line. Gears have shifted. The Kenyan sunlight is waning. The air is soft and still. The scene returns to a resting state, which gives me a chance to catch my breath and reconnect with the larger space around me.

Our land rover—expertly maneuvered off-road in pursuit of the dogs—now rests between two mounded hills that sit atop an escarpment just before it melts into open valley. The usual human adornments—cell towers, fences, roads, tin roofs—are absent. This is Loisaba Wilderness, a 56,000-acre ranch in Kenya’s Laikipia County. The notable absence of those ubiquitous items drives home how very raw, remote and increasingly rare a place this is. I feel fortunate to not only be here and see it for myself, but also for the fact that I am part of a team working to preserve this wilderness.

Its resources are shared with surrounding communities who graze their livestock among its abundant wildlife. The Nature Conservancy and its partners are here to ensure that the habitat Loisaba provides for wild dogs, elephants and other wildlife is secure and healthy. We’re also here to protect and expand the many benefits Loisaba provides for people: jobs in tourism and ranch management, healthy pasture for livestock, schools, healthcare and security.

I’m struck by the contrast. Using modern science and economics, we aim to restore and strengthen a centuries-old balance between people and nature so that Loisaba remains this wild forever.

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
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